By John Payne, LA Weekly
Yoko Ono has a new album coming out tomorrow, September 22. In tribute to the free form, eclectic spirit of her all-star band of the ’70s with husband John Lennon, she has credited her album to Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band. It’s called Between My Head and the Sky (Chimera Music).
The album’s an panoply of flavors, moods, intents and approaches, many of which owe to the very modern and relevant musicians Ono’s son Sean Lennon, acting as music director, assembled for the recording sessions, including luminaries from the worlds of avant-jazz, electronic pop and progressive-leaning indie rock, including Yuka Honda of Cibo Matto, Tokyo sound-collage wiz Cornelius and nu-jazz cellist Erik Friedlander.
Ono talked with me over the phone about the album’s making, and related things.
LA WEEKLY: Let’s start with the title of the album, Yoko. What is the significance of the words “Between My Head and the Sky”?
YOKO ONO: That is where my inspiration is.
You have an interesting lyric where you say, “This line is connected to a thousand universes.”
It’s very important that it’s between my head and the sun. You know, many people think that they’re getting a message from the sky, a vision or something — they think that then they just go ahead with what they want to do. But my expression is in between the sky and my head.
Did you have an initial concept for this new album beyond an articulation of that expression?
No, there was no concept, except that this is me now, and I wanted to show that. Just because this feels like me.
There’s a lot of pictures there. If you’re careful, listening, you notice that it’s really something new as well. For instance, the form of music: Usually the form of music is, if you decide that it should be pop, then it’s all pop, you know? Or if you decide it’s jazz, then all jazz. And life is not like that. I mean, you hear classical music and then suddenly you hear jingles. So when you try to sanitize it and edit it, it just brings up one type of music, it’s boring.
I mean, you don’t want to give something more boring than life. That’s not interesting. That’s not good.
Your lyrical approach is varied on the album, including several tracks sung in Japanese, and many possibly made up on the spot during recording. How much of the lyrical material on the new album was improvised?It’s hard to tell.
It’s amazing, there are some, well, classical kinds of lyrics that just came out of my mouth, because I come from that age, the old-fashioned . . . what is it, songs, you know? And that was me, too — it’s right out of literature or something. And then some of them are just dance-music kind of lyrics, too. But with songs like “Feel the Sand,” it’s important that all of this that came out of me, I didn’t manipulate it or I didn’t try to reconstruct the wishes there.
Where is your head while you’re freestyling these lyrics? What are you feeling?
I don’t know. I mean, it comes out — sometimes it doesn’t come out, and sometimes it comes out, you know.
Are you susceptible to the vibe or ambience in the room, for example?
I don’t think so . . . Some of the songs, maybe. I mean, on “Moving Mountains,” I decided I just had to sing about mountains. Sort of like a song that would move mountains, that we can move mountains. And then I realized that no words were coming out. And it’s very beautiful because in order to move mountains you just have to have maybe some beautiful sound, not words.
You’ve also done pieces that are obviously not improvised, such as “Memory of Footsteps.”
It’s kind of improvisation – well, it is and it isn’t. About five years ago, 10 years ago – anyway, around that time – we all went to this summer place, and I just thought of writing that. The concept of the material was something in my diary, but it wasn’t rhyming, I don’t think so.
This particular song was about a very close friend of mine who died young. He was a very intelligent and beautiful guy, but toward the end of it he wasn’t – I mean, he was beautiful, but he was feeling old.
“Hashire, Hashire” is a touching song, even if one doesn’t understand Japanese.
“Hashire Hashire” is a beautiful image that came to me. A woman’s husband, he died, and amid all these terrible things that are happening, this woman is saying, “I want to cry, I want to cry, I want to cryeeeee.” The woman is saying, “They took my heart, they cut my breast, and took my…” All sort of things in her body they took away, and there’s nothing left. And to her cat, she says, “You’re always under the desk.” But suddenly she realizes that the cat is not under the desk, then she sees him running away in the horizon. And she’s saying, “Oh, I see you, I see you in the horizon. Well, there’s nothing left, go, go!”
“Hashire, Hashire” means run, run.
The evocative chords of “Higa Noboru” would draw even the casual listener in, but once there they might want a translation of the lyrics.
“Higa Noboru” means “The sun is rising.” And it starts when the sun is down, and it’s just after you wake up, and you proceed with all the sort of earthly daily things that you go through, and the awareness you draw from it — and then, I’m going away smiling. In the end, the sun bites the dust.
Do you think there’s anything characteristically “Japanese” about your music and art?
No, but this time several of these songs came out in Japanese, and I thought, That’s good, too. I didn’t sort of plan it. You know, I do think there was a point in my life that I was just dreaming in English. And then several years ago I started to go to Japan every year to do this charity concert for Africa, and I started to get more acquainted with the new Japanese, the new Japan, so to speak, and it was really very mind-boggling. And so now I find the Japanese language coming out.
I like the modernist slant you’re taking in your choice of musical collaborators recently, though of course given your background in the avant garde that shouldn’t be a surprise. Your teaming with Cornelius on the new album is particularly inspired. What are you learning from these new forward-looking artists?
Oh, it’s great. You see, they are very precise and incredibly professional musicians. But at the same time they have this kind of style and feel. I wouldn’t even call it current — I think it’s the future.
Yuka Honda’s playing, computing and engineering work is fantastic.
Yuka has been a longtime friend, she’s part of the family. And she’s incredible, she’s unique and independent. There was a feel about Cibo Matto that was very good. I’m very, very lucky that we got each of these incredibly professional and sensitive, weird people – weird and sensitive! [Laughs]
Perhaps you were luckiest to have your son working with you.
That’s exactly what it is, and I’ll tell you why. I hadn’t realized that he knew my music so well. John and I discussed it, and we just didn’t want to influence Sean in any way at all. It’s too much for him; it’s too much for any kid to have John Lennon as a father, and I’m active too and all that, so we tried not to sort of influence him.
But Sean knew everything — the Beatles, John Lennon, me — and so he decided that he would get me the best studio producer, choose someone who was just right for me, and he got all these musicians. He was the music director. And he did a great job.
It’s heartening to see how he’s developed as a musician, and as an individual thinker.
Oh, I’m so glad, because, you know, he had it very, very hard. It was very difficult.
Sure, growing up in the public eye like that.
But also having a father like that, and he has a brother who’s a musician, too, and of course the Beatles, etc., etc. So I think he did very well surviving it.
He’s a cool guy, too.
[Laughs] Yes. Thank you for saying that, but I’m the last one to know…
Are you getting time to do new visual art?
Yes, I do. The last one I did – and it’s still on — was for the Venice Biennale. I am proud of this work that I did in Venice; it’s a very conceptual work, but explaining that is gonna be another book, so forget it.
Just curious, do you sketch or doodle? Like late at night at the kitchen table, do you still draw pictures?
Oh, I do. I think I have about 900 drawings, so many. But they’re very different from Sean’s drawing – if you know Sean’s drawing, it’s very unique, and very different from John’s, and all three of us are very different from each other, in the technique of drawing. So we’re very lucky that way – we don’t fight with each other about it. [Laughs]
Have you considered publishing your drawings?
Yes [sighs], I should, but I have so many. First of all, we’re going to a few cities to do concerts for this album.
Including Los Angeles, I hope.
Well, I hope so. I’m not the one who’s arranging all these concerts. But yesterday I just saw that there are two New York ones, and I’m thinking, “Where’s L.A.? Where’s Chicago?”
One more thing: On the new album, you say this is “a time for action.”
Yes! That’s the reason I wasn’t doing any albums for several years. The reason was, after 9/11, I just went to so many countries to promote world peace, and I thought that was very important. And I really think that we’re gonna make it. We are going to make it.
But isn’t this also a time for silence, for a globe-spanning quietude, for reflection? That would seem to be what your song “Feel the Sand” suggests. As you say, “That’s what we live for.”
Those are all sort of songs that aspire to some sort of peace in your mind, and I think that peace has to come from within you, of course. Healing’s a good one, too.